La Jolla Library launches 3-D printing and biotech labs

La Jolla’s Riford Library is bringing activity time into the 21st century with the installation of a 3-D printer and educational Basic Safety Level (BSL) 1 biotech laboratory for small-scale public workshops and demonstrations.

While San Diego Central Library downtown also has a 3-D printer, La Jolla’s library might be the first in the world with a safe, open-to-the-public biotech lab, said branch manager Shaun Briley.

“Libraries have always been involved in inspiring learning and technological literacy,” he said. “Two of the most interesting areas of science — each with mind- bending ramifications for society — are 3-D printing and biotechnology. Our programs will give the public a basic literacy for understanding these complex technologies and we’ll talk about these developments and their societal impacts. Since La Jolla is one of only a very few centers for biotechnology in the world, it seems like the right place to do this.”

La Jolla Library partnered with the Fab Lab, a non-profit community design and fabrication laboratory based in San Diego’s Maker’s Quarter, to set up the 3-D printer and design software, which will be open to the public as long as there is a volunteer to supervise.

“We want it so that members of the public can walk in and say ‘what is 3-D printing?’ and have it shown to them,” Briley said. “We are doing introductory and basic level stuff here and if residents want to take it further, we’ll show them where to go.”

With the two MakerBot Replicator printers found at the library and accompanying design programs, participants can use the software to design whatever they would like to make, as long as the finished product fits on the approximately one-square-foot platform (and the creator is mindful of how long it would take, if others are waiting to use the printer).

The printer then creates layers in an additive process, one slice at a time. Depending on the item, it can take anywhere from five minutes to several hours to print. The library will have a limit of two hours per session.

The library also has handouts with free design software for home use, so designers can prepare something at home, save it on a USB storage device from which the printer can register information, and bring it to the library for printing.

However, Briley said he hopes those that use the printer would make something that could be beneficial to the community, and has been in talks with the Braille Institute to get workshops together to make Braille rulers.

In addition to the open hours — for which people can call the library for volunteers’ hours — there will be structured monthly workshops and select times for school groups. The 3-D sessions scheduled for the next few months are completely filled, largely with La Jolla High School students. During the first workshop April 16, students practiced 3-D modeling tutorials on laptops before going into the lab.

Fab Lab director Katie Rast said through the workshops participants will learn about the real technology and the capabilities behind 3-D printers, as well as how to maneuver 3-D modeling programs, such as tinkercad.com

“To take the ideas in their heads and actually make them into forms, people are going to learn about 3-D modeling,” she said. “We also expose participants to some of the newer things that are coming online and the technology behind 3-D printing that is changing the game and advancing technology related to biotech, medical prosthetic devices, aerospace, robotics — you name it. There are so many areas where 3-D printers are playing a huge role in changing manufacturing and the way we are able to make things.” Adding that the Fab Lab has partnerships with other libraries in San Diego, Rast said she thinks it’s “amazing” that the La Jolla Library is integrating digital technologies with more traditional media.

“We see libraries as these traditional hubs of information and a center of learning in every culture and community, so we feel that they are a great way to reach out and connect with more people,” she said. “The library system is so important, it distributes all this knowledge and information to the community. We want to take this stuff we’ve been doing and we’ve been passionate about, and help connect more people with it.”

The Fab Lab houses a separate group, the Wet Lab, which also facilitates hands-on scientific activities. At the La Jolla Library, the Wet Lab will offer biotech workshops.

“The intention of our lab is to introduce kids and the public to this rapidly evolving field and pull away the veil of mystery and fear around it through practical, informative and exciting demonstrations,” Briley said. “The tools will include (donated) microscopes, thermal cyclers (aka DNA amplifiers), electrophoresis gel boxes and other basic molecular biology equipment.” He said the demonstrations are safe and conducted by qualified volunteers. The lab will operate using the same tools and technologies available in high school Advanced Placement biology classes and abide by Basic Safety Level I protocols and standards.

Wet Lab director Cameron Clarke said at one time, the equipment used by the La Jolla Library’s biotech lab cost thousands of dollars and was only available to labs and universities. “By putting a Wet Lab in a library, you give the public access to tools they would never have access to,” he said. “But this is not going to be full-blown lab, it’s designed to allow folks to come in and get their feet wet. It’s an exciting opportunity and we are going to crawl before we walk, and walk before we run.”

To introduce the scientific concepts available for exploration in the biotech lab, the Wet Lab will host a monthly workshop for all ages and a monthly lecture for adults. The workshop will be 3 p.m. Saturday, May 2 and will demonstrate how scientists extract DNA from living things, in this case, a strawberry. The lecture, called Citizen Science, will be 6 p.m. May 5, and continue the first Tuesday of the month, and focus on biological concepts.

Similar to the 3-D printing lab, the library will also offer open hours in the biotech lab so long as there is a qualified volunteer on hand to supervise, though the hours have not been established. “Our objective is to make these experiments available to the public so folks interested in science can tinker and learn and understand what it means to do molecular biology and how to work with DNA,” he said. “Most people have never seen DNA before, it’s really cool.”

Having this kind of equipment and facilitation in a public library is “revolutionary” Clarke said, adding those with pre-existing scientific knowledge or interest can reap the benefits of conducting a simple experiment hands-on. “Let’s say someone takes a science course (online or in school) to learn about biology and says to themselves it would be great to see this and what DNA looks like. They could watch videos or read about it, but now they can actually do it,” Clarke said. He added that free Massive Open Online Courses or MOOCs are a way to introduce oneself to scientific topics or advance their education.

Future library workshops would cover DNA comparisons, forensic sciences and marine biology. “It sounds complicated, but the truth is, we want to demonstrate that these capabilities can be taught and tinkered with in a library setting,” Clarke said.

Briley added, “There is a responsibility to make sure the workforce is available locally to supply the biotech industry. By offering our lab facilities, the library is supplying an important educational tool to residents by allowing them to learn hands-on skills.”

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